All of us have acquired habits that we would like to change. Sometimes this involves decreasing or discontinuing a behavior, such as smoking, or nail biting. Habit change can also involve developing a healthy new routine, such as getting regular exercise, eating well, practicing stress management, and so forth.
Psychologists have known for some time that we pick up habits for what our brains see as good reasons. The reasons can be quite conscious, but many times we are not aware of when or why or how the habit has formed. Yet, our brains are very skilled at making neural links among 1.) a cue (aka, an event or trigger), 2.) performing a behavior or routine, and 3.) experiencing a subsequent “reward.” The behavior can result in something we want, such as feeling mellow or tasting something delicious, or involve the removal of something we don’t want, such as no longer feeling lonely or anxious or bored. Of course, many habits do both for us.
Regardless of whether we would consider a habit to be positive, negative, or neutral, our brains quickly recognize that a type of behavior (the habit) leads to a specific reward. We also very instinctively connect these rewards to particular triggers or cues that set this chain of events in motion. Triggers can be internal (e.g., feeling sad, angry, or anxious) or external (having a stressful interaction with a coworker).
Changing the Habit Chain
What follows are 5 important questions to ask yourself before you embark on a plan to change a habit. After answering these, read on for essential tips on how to successfully create positive change.
Now that you have answered the above, follow the steps below and you will be well on your way to making positive change. I recommend you use a journal to help organize this process.
To summarize, habits consist of a chain of triggers, behaviors, and rewards. The above recommendations can help you better understand your particular habit chain, become more aware of the pros and cons of making change, and let go of worry about the process. You can then create and commit to an effective plan for change that is in line with your healthiest self.
Dr. Traci Stein is a licensed psychologist, certified clinical hypnotherapist, and health educator. She is also the former Director of Integrative Medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, and the creator of several affirming self-hypnosis programs. Her most recent one, “Creating Positive Change,” is available via HealthJourneys.com, iTunes, and Amazon.com. If you try the program and like it, please review it!